David Betteridge is the author of a collection of poems celebrating Glasgow and its radical traditions, 'Granny Albyn's Complaint', published by Smokestack Books in 2008. He is also the editor of a compilation of poems, songs, prose memoirs, photographs and cartoons celebrating the 1971-2 UCS work-in on Clydeside. This book, called 'A Rose Loupt Oot', was published by Smokestack Books in 2011.
David Betteridge has written a commemorative work of prose and poetry especially for this Russian Revolution section of Culture Matters. An extract from the poetry is given in ebook format here, along with some illustrations by Bob Starrett.
Flight and Fall looks back at the events of 1917 from the standpoint of Glasgow in 2017.
David Betteridge has written a commemorative work of prose and poetry especially for this Russian Revolution section of Culture Matters. An extract from the poetry is given in ebook format here, along with some illustrations by Bob Starrett.
Flight and Fall looks back at the events of 1917 from the standpoint of Glasgow in 2017.
I am nothing and I should be everything... - Karl Marx
The best part of the building was the people in it.
They made of its doomed fabric, homes:
homes that for many, at a stroke,
in an upward avalanche of fire,
became their graves.
in a blaze that did not need to burn
would be a great crime; but there were more,
choked and charred, beyond counting,
every death foreseeable and forewarned.
They were killed by neglect’s slow hand,
in contempt’s quick flame.
Social murder is that crime’s name.
Who but madmen clad a building
in a stuff that burns, and airily dismiss
their tenants’ grounded fears?
Who - unless a cold, self-serving class that,
counting others nothing, ranks itself supreme?
Grenfell: say the word quick, and we sense
“green” and “field”: but there is nothing here,
now, that speaks of any bright
and pleasant thing.
Black is the colour
of this towering monument to corporate wrong,
this pigeon-loft for people and their rich dreams,
this block of execution cells, this funeral pyre,
this place of long mourning and sharp ire.
You who designed this wreck,
look on the evidence stacked up that proves
your complicity in taking, with your profits,
lives: you stand condemned.
We, the many,
who are nothing in your unjust land,
also look; we learn from Grenfell Tower.
Its black text reads:
We should be everything, authors of our own ends
in our own names, seizing and holding,
in our own safe hands,
The motto text for my poem is taken from Karl Marx’s An Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843). Of course, when Marx wrote, “I am nothing and I should be everything”, he was waxing a bit poetical himself. The “I” that he propounded was not himself, nor any individual, and certainly not the ego that Max Stirner was soon to write about in The Ego and Its Own (1845). No, the “I” that should be everything is the mythic voice of Revolution, as is made clear when the motto is put in its proper context:
It is only in the name of the general interest that a particular class can claim general supremacy... that revolutionary daring which throws at its adversary the defiant phrase: “I am nothing and I should be everything.”
In the poem, I have changed “I” to “we”, to make its collective nature doubly clear. In the thirteenth line of the poem, I level the charge of “social murder” against those who designed, built and mis-managed those aspects of Grenfell Tower that contributed to the catastrophic spreading of a fire in one of the Tower’s constituent flats to so many others, with so many deaths. The charge is carefully chosen, being used with the meaning given to it by Friedrich Engels, in his classic work of investigation and analysis, The Condition of the Working Class in England, written during his stay in Manchester from 1842 to 1844. A lot has changed since then, but some things remain the same:
When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.
I have now to prove that society in England daily and hourly commits what the working-men's organs, with perfect correctness, characterise as social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time. I have further to prove that society knows how injurious such conditions are to the health and the life of the workers, and yet does nothing to improve these conditions. That it knows the consequences of its deeds; that its act is, therefore, not mere manslaughter, but murder, I shall have proved, when I cite official documents, reports of Parliament and of the Government, in substantiation of my charge.
John McDonnell levelled this charge of “social murder” against the guilty parties in the Grenfell Towers case, notably on TV (16 July, 2017), and so did others, most importantly the Grenfell Action Group, who wrote in their blog that,
What happened wasn’t a ‘terrible tragedy’ or some other studio-sofa platitude: it was social murder.
Engels’s criteria, spelled out above, apply with horrible force to the killing of the Grenfell Tower residents. They also apply to the multitudes of lives diminished, hurt, exploited, and truncated over many generations, both before and after Engels’s time - victims of an economic “order” that puts its own requirements first, and beggar the rest.
David Betteridge introduces a drawing from Owen McGuigan which 'takes a line for a walk'; and a song on the same theme of shipbuilding on Clydeside.
Watching Owen McGuigan taking photographs is an eyeopener, especially when he is at work among a crowd at a public event. It is like watching a snooker player lining up a shot, or a footballer, seen in slow motion in a video, moving with expertise to be in the right place for a good kick or header, at the decisive moment. Strangely, Owen manages to do this almost unobtrusively, despite the fact that his shock of white hair acts as a flag. It is a flag of peace, perhaps, signalling a quiet professionalism.
Behind Owen’s skill in taking photographs lies something equally important for understanding his genius, and the genesis of his huge archive of images (including videos) that document the life and soul of his native Clydebank. See www.myclydebankphotos.co.uk. That “something” is a habit of looking at the world and the people in it sympathetically. He looks with a feeling eye, and a democratic one.
Besides photography, Owen works in other media too - fretwork, for example. A piece of his combining several iconic images from the Clydebank Blitz has pride of place in an exhibition in the Town Hall, commemorating that dreadful episode in the town’s history.
Drawing is another outlet for his vision. Sitting with a sheet of paper in front of him early in the New Year (2017), and with a pen in his hand, Owen began to “doodle”, as he puts it. One part of the drawing led to the next, until, by an uncanny process, the drawing reproduced above was completed. Owen calls it “Profit and Loss”. It represents, in a complex and beautifully ordered way, the industry that put Clydebank on the map, shipbuilding.
Paul Klee famously described drawing as taking a line for a walk. Owen’s “Profit and Loss” does something similar. He takes a scene for a walk, or maybe a selection of themes from a scene, namely a composite shipyard, and takes them for a walk; or, viewing the drawing from a different angle, you might say that the drawing takes the observer on a conducted tour of the scene, starting where Owen started, namely at a magnificent great girder at the centre of the page. From there our eye progresses, from detail to detail, following a roundabout route to the drawing’s edges and corners.
You might object that we should start by looking at “Profit and Loss” in the round (or rectangle), as a whole, enjoying the strength and coherence of the overall design first, and only then zooming in on the details - and what details there are, of various sizes, shapes and textures! There is a pint of Guinness on the pub bar, ready poured, waiting for the drinker’s arrival soon from the yard; there are palm trees in a holiday resort that the builders of cruise liners that take folk there will never themselves visit; there is the lovely contour of a ship’s keel driving into waves; there is a man falling; there is blood.
In fact, there is no single way of looking at this, or any drawing. There are several ways, and they are complementary, and different people will see different significances in the selection and combination of pictorial elements. If you know about shipbuilding, you will see more in “Profit and Loss” than most. You will see, for example, references to the deadly phenomenon of asbestos, which has hit Clydebank as badly over the generations as anywhere.
Regarding this killer, Owen has written:
There are several asbestos references in the drawing. Although the shipyards have long gone, we are still living with the legacy of asbestos. Many workers have died as a result of asbestos-related cancers and diseases. Below is a copy of “Profit and Loss” with some reference notes to asbestos.
Here is a bit of info about Marinite board used on the ships: Marinite Insulating Panels are 4-foot by 8-foot sized boards that are currently sold as an asbestos-free product, but that was not always the case. For many years, these panels were made with the naturally occurring mineral, because it can control heat and even help stop the spread of fire. This made it ideal for use in industrial settings, and also for homes, schools, churches and most any other standing structure. Aside from its heat-resistant capabilities, asbestos was also extremely durable, so products made from it can last for decades. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a negative trait. The International Asbestos Memorial is down at the bottom left of the drawing.
“Profit and Loss” benefits from repeated looking, I believe; and it makes a good companion to certain poems and songs on the same subject of shipbuilding, considered in the same complex way. One such song is a brilliant and moving piece called “Song o the Yard”, written by the late Leo Coyle, who said of his work:
Much has been written and sung in praise of the Clyde and the great ships built there, but little written or sung are about the hellish conditions endured by the workers who built them. Since I served my time in the shipyards, I lived with the unique humour and tenacity of the Clyde shipyard worker to overcome and survive in spite of so many betrayals. The song is self explanatory and is supported by guitar accompaniment that echoes the tragedy of the loss of a proud industry.
Here is “Song o the Yard”, performed by Leo’s daughter and son, Leanne and Eddie, followed by the lyrics:
Through the eyes o a young man born on the Clyde, When the pulse o humanity turned on the tide, An a nation that depended on ships for its trade, Turned a blind eye on the price that was paid.
Raw cauld is the mist on the river at dawn, Wi coat collars up, the men hurry on; The keel maun be laid ere a new ship is born, An yae might lose a shift if yer late for the horn.
The frames o the hull in the cauld mists are lost, A skeleton dressed in a mantle o frost, A spectre sae drear t’would daunt even the brave, For there’s nae caulder place tween the womb an the grave.
Wi the reek o steel burnin an the clangin o plates, The choking on fumes an shoutin o mates, Wi the din o the caulkers vibratin the shell, A ship on the stocks is just organised hell.
But there’s aye caustic humour an witty retort. An endless comment aboot wimen an sport, For it’s wimen an horses an who scored the goal That sustain men in life such conditions tae thole.
On Kilbowie Hill the beeches stand tall, Oer men frae the yards who hae given their all, One moment alive and the next just a wreck, Covered oer wi coats on a cauld rusty deck.
They were aye in the news when the critics cried oot, Just countin up hours that’s lost in dispute; An I wonder, did they earn their livin as hard As the men that were buildin the ships in the yard?
Noo, there must be oer many who think they were daft, Takin pride in oor labour, oor skill an oor craft, Buildin luxury liners, empresses an queens, That ever tae sail on was far yond oor dreams
Through the eyes o an auld man, I gaze on the river, An the young jobless men, wonderin if it’s for ever; Wi Scotland united, we’ll still turn the tide, An return tae its glory, the Valley o Clyde.
One last reference cries out to be given, namely a collection of poems springing from a similar experience and culture and ethos as Owen’s and Leo’s, namely Bill Sutherland’s A Clydeside Lad. Three of these poems are included in A Rose Loupt Oot, an anthology published by Smokestack Books of various materials inspired by the great UCS Work-In of 1971-72.
In one of them, the poet characterises a ship under construction as being both a “beast o steel” and a “beauty”, and wonders, in the voice of childhood, “whit god’s, whit divvil’s beast is this?” What contradictions there are here, as in Owen’s “Profit and Loss” and Leo’s “Song o the Yard”!
The bare and barren tree can be made green again... - Antonio Gramsci
¶ A boy cried. His bedside cup, brimful with milk before he slept, was empty now, at morning-time. Not one drop he'd drunk. How, then, no milk?
The culprit mouse, her creamy lips a give-away, felt sorry for the boy. And still he cried.
She thought: I'll get the cattle to make good his loss.
But no: Today our milk's dried up.
Field, asked the mouse, have you some juicy grass to give?
Sorry, the field explained, I'm parched. Will you fetch water from the well?
Brokenly, the well demurred. My rim's caved in; I need repaired.
¶ Mason, will you take the job?
Apologetically, I'm short of stone, the mason said.
¶ Next, to a bleak hill. I've granite here enough to build a town, but not a single sett will go to humankind. Aggrieved, the hill refused the mouse's plea.
Imagine - mouse to hill - imagine that you feel the balm of maple trees where you are bare. If you give the mason stone, the boy whose milk I took will come to you a man - you have my word - and he will work for you this remedy I plan.
¶ The hill relented;
the mason fixed the well;
water by the bucketful was raised;
the pasture greened;
the cattle's udders swelled, and cups and bellies soon were filled.
Strong as a bull, the boy grew, a farmer-forester.
The mouse, her children, and theirs as well, in turn, each year reminded him: a promise had been made.
¶ Hectare on hectare now,
gladdening the hill,
a coverlet of green extends
its shade, a living tribute
to the mouse’s will.
A note on its sources, which are a Sardinian folk-tale, Antonio Gramsci, Hamish Henderson, Gordon Brown, and John Berger.
“A Coverlet of Green” is derived from a folk-tale from Sardinia. This folk-tale was written down in the mid-1930s by the Marxist philosopher and political activist, Antonio Gramsci, in a letter to his son. The letter was smuggled out of one of Mussolini’s gaols, where Gramsci had been imprisoned, “to stop his brain from functioning”. (In fact, his brain functioned all the more powerfully.)
Later, during the Second World War, Hamish Henderson, the Scottish poet, singer, folklorist, teacher, and lots of other things, came across Gramsci’s writings, including his prison letters. Henderson was at that time an intelligence officer in the British Army, and one of his duties was to make contact with Italian partisans opposed to Mussolini. One such group called itself the Antonio Gramsci Brigade. It was they who acted as the link between the philosopher’s ideas and the soldier. Henderson’s translation of Gramsci’s letters were published two decades later by a students’ printing press at Edinburgh University, edited by a radical (even revolutionary) student leader who went on to pursue a noteworthy career in politics, although rather less radical, one Gordon Brown.
Later still, John Berger discovered Hamish Henderson’s translation of Gramsci’s re-telling of the Sardinain folk-tale. He so liked it that he re-told it himself in an essay about Gramsci called “How to Live with Stones”, published in an essay-collection The Shape of a Pocket. He also re-told the tale in a radio interview on BBC Radio 3. It was this broadcast version that sparked my own attempt at a re-telling, in “A Coverlet of Green”.
John Berger’s death on 2nd January, just two months after his 90th birthday, leaves a great gap in literature and cultural politics. My poem, with Bob Starrett’s lovely green evocation of new growth - maple leaves lit by sunshine - was intended for publication as a birthday greeting, but it missed that deadline. Now it can serve as an In Memoriam.
David Betteridge offers an appreciation of the late, great John Berger.
There are some authors whose way with words not only reflects a way of living, but also excites it. It has a moral force as well as an aesthetic sense. John Berger, who died on 2 January, was an author of this kind.
Year on year, since he began his writing career with art criticism for the New Statesman in the 1950s, an increasingly wide world of readers has been delighted as his latest essay, article, review, novel, memoir, letter, play, film, tale, poem, or whatever was published. I say “whatever” because it is a feature of Berger’s work that it is varied in its scope, and more than that: it is also varied in its mixing of genres within a single text. A novel may contain drawings; an essay may do the same, and then veer into memoir; philosophy and politics crop up everywhere, as do poems, in glorious profusion.
Looking back over Berger’s career, which included such notable achievements as Permanent Red (1960), a collection of the first decade of his art criticism; A Fortunate Man (1967), a study of a country doctor, including photographs by Jean Mohr; Ways of Seeing (1972), a TV series about art history, and also a book, never out of print; G (1972), a novel, winner of that year’s Booker Prize; A Seventh Man (1975), the most mixed of his mixed-genre books, “composed” jointly with Jean Mohr as an investigation into the lives of migrant workers in a Europe that was hungry, and is still hungry, for cheap labour; To the Wedding (1995), a story of multiple loves, lived under a sentence of death from AIDS; and, fast-forwarding to 2016, A Sparrow’s Journey, a study of, and celebration of, and continuation of the storytelling genius of Andrey Platonov - looking back over this career, I am reminded of Coleridge’s wild fig-tree, its old roots deep in a rock, “still starting up anew, with the playfulness of the Boy...”
Berger achieved his evergreen feat “amid the profoundest and most condensed constructions of hardest Thinking.” And not just thinking: feeling, too. Both are in constant play in his writing, each animating the other. There are times when his prose has the articulate energy and sensuous beauty of poetry. Take this little extract (slightly edited), for example, from his story “The Accordion Player”, from Once in Europa (1983), which is the second of his Into Their Labours trilogy, set in the mountains of Haute-Savoie where Berger spent much of the second part of his life:
The milking finished, he entered the kitchen. He had closed the shutters... to keep the room cool. Light from the sunset filtered between their slats. On the window sill was the bunch of flowers he had picked. On seeing them he stopped in mid-stride. He stared at them as if they were a ghost... He pulled a chair from under the table, he sat down and he wept... Odd how sounds of distress are recognised by animals. The dog approached the man’s back and, getting up on its hind legs, rested its front paws on his shoulder blades. He wept for all that would no longer happen...
Berger said of himself, in a recent interview with Kate Kellaway (Guardian, 30 October, 2016), that “If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listen”. Yes, he listened; and, just as importantly, he looked. He looked as intently as a field naturalist, or an artist - which Berger was, all his days – drawing someone’s portrait, or his favourite philosopher, Spinoza, practising his trade as a lens-grinder, or “la vigie - the lookout guy on a boat”, as he told Kate Kellaway. He looked, and he saw more than most of us.
The very titles of some of Berger’s books confirm this commitment to closely examining things in all their minute particulars. There is The Look of Things (1972), About Looking (1980), The Sense of Sight (1993), as well as the already mentioned Ways of Seeing.
If you have watched Berger on TV and heard him speak, you will have detected the way that so long an immersion in his Haute-Savoie neighbours’ French had inflected his native English voice. More significantly, if you have read the many poems that he translated from other languages, you will understand the way that a wide world of inspiration had inflected his thought. Aime Cesaire, Bertolt Brecht, Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwish, and others: the labour of wrestling their meaning into alternative expression served to broaden Berger’s already broad internationalism. He was the least insular of Englishmen, the least Eurocentric of Europeans. He was a world-citizen, viewing as he did the pages of literature “as if it were a place, an assembly point”: a sort of convivial commons.
All of the titles that I have listed above, plus the many more that I have omitted that I might equally well have listed, are open doors to such places. It is sad to think that their maker and sharer has written his last.
Poems by David Betteridge Drawings by Bob Starrett
£5.99 (plus £1.50 p&p) 48 pp ISBN 978 1907 464164
Slave Songs and Symphonies is an ambitious, beautifully crafted collection of poems, images and epigraphs. It's about human history, progressive art and music, campaigns for political freedom, social justice and peace. Above all it's about the class and cultural struggle of workers 'by hand and by brain’ to regain control and ownership of the fruits of their labour.
David Betteridge’s poems are leftist, lyrical, and learned, infused with sadness and compassion for the sufferings of our class, the working class. They are also inspired by visionary hope, and a strong belief that our class-divided society and culture can be transformed by radical politics and good art – and by radical art and good politics.
Bob Starrett’s drawings are much more than illustrations. They dance with the poems, commenting on them as well as illustrating them. They are like Goya’s drawings in their dark, ink-black truthfulness and their intimate knowledge of suffering and Blake’s 'mental fight'. Like the poems, they express and resolve the struggles they depict.
Slave Songs and Symphonies tells the story of how slave songs become symphonies – and helps makes it happen. It is not just about class and cultural struggle – it is class and cultural struggle.
David Betteridge reviews Jim Aitken's latest collection.
In the three dozen poems that make up Jim Aitken’s latest collection, Flutterings, we sense a mind fully engaged in the world. The poet’s senses, feelings and intelligence are all equally involved; and it is a large world that he inhabits, ranging from such minute particulars as the bark of a silver birch tree peeling like “paint-work starting to flake” to such over-arching ideas as “the world turned upside down”.
The viewpoint from which Jim Aitken makes his observations is, in the first instance, his native Edinburgh, but behind that, through his family’s connections, lies a hinterland extending from Ireland to the Scottish Highlands. Add to that a wide internationalist perspective gained partly by travel and partly by engagement in socialist politics.
Flutterings is organised around three themes, leaves (at the beginning of the collection), feathers (at the end), with “Unum - All One to Me” in between. So we encounter plenty of trees and plenty of birds, beautifully captured in words, in all their uniqueness. There are the “plane and palm, / their branches flapping like washing on a line”; and there are arrogant blackbirds with their “frogspawn eyes”, and gallus magpies, and cormorants doing tai-chi. Permeating all these observations and capturings, however, and expressed directly in the book’s central section of poems, is the poet’s understanding that “the One encompasses all – / one world, one race, one love for all”.
This human (and humane) understanding informs a lovely tribute-poem dedicated to one of Jim Aitken’s friends, the Palestinian poet Iyad Hayatleh, now settled in Scotland, and recently widowed here. Its closing lines give us a good taste of what the collection offers:
Sometimes tears can fill his eyes and not just for his wife but for the lands that are within him...
Yet he is here with us and at home with us; he is one of us, he is one of our ain folk extending us with his experience - an Arab in Scotland and a home in Scotland transported way beyond the madness of borders.
Flutterings can best be described as a book of elegies, in the full, old-fashioned sense of the term “elegies”, that is to say poems of serious reflection, including laments for the dead. Jim Aitken’s serious reflection does not shy away from looking hard at politics (“adverse governance by the few”), nor from the upsets of everyday life, but it also delights in family and friends and simply being in the world. His serious reflection includes the comic, too, and the absurd, as in a poem about his grandson, Michael, called “Running and Chasing”:
As far as Michael is concerned all birds are essentially ducks. Not for him fluffy cats or dogs or even farmyard animals.
For him any bird means a quack and if he can he will chase them, possibly hoping to enter into flight if he does not catch one...
As for laments for the dead, in a sequence of six poems at the heart of the collection, the poet commemorates his mother, Mary Aitken, placing her with great precision in her time and place (as in the poem “Dunnet Head”), and honouring her influence, after “your stem broke and fell”.
The language of Flutterings is a flexible, extended, precise, and often conversational English. In a comment on one of Jim Aitken’s earlier collections, Neptune’s Staff and Other Formations (published by Scottish CND in 2007), Terry Eagleton commended its “delightful combination of lyrical delicacy and political toughness”. These characteristics are still very much in evidence here.
The English used is the English that Jim Aitken himself speaks, learned in a family where Irish and Highland and Leith vernaculars were the norm. “You talk in the first instance as your parents’ talk,” he explains. “That is your initial linguistic sound and register. Then, of course, there was the Englishing that went on in school...” He endured this process of having “street talk knocked out of you”, but can now happily report that, “I actually love English as a language, while I speak it with an East-coast Scottish accent.” In his own work as a teacher in an Edinburgh secondary school, he supported the use of Scots as well as English, and also Gaelic, and “left teaching with more Scottish literature being more widely used than when I was a student.”
The “political toughness” that Terry Eagleton remarked on makes its bone and muscle and sinew felt even in those poems in Flutterings that begin somewhere else. “Late Leaves” is a good example:
Late Leaves by Jim Aitken
All the leaves were later this year with the extended cold and the snow. And when the first buds burst open delight and relief became one.
Now in full flush they shine and sway in sunlight as they always should. Yet so many seem to take this for granted as they always do.
In a world turned upside down by the monstrous greed of the few there is little of permanence and much more precariousness.
Late leaves mean zero hours contracts, a shuffling people on the move from one bedroom just too many imposed by those in their mansions.
Late leaves like the merging seasons should be telling us something true, to challenge the drift to darkness where stunted trees produce no leaves.
By leaves we breathe, by leaves we live and through our dumb disharmony we threaten the leaves’ appearance where all their wealth then turns to dust.
It may be worth pointing out that 'By leaves we live' is a core idea underpinning the life, work and thinking of the great biologist, sociologist, geographer, town-planner and educationalist Patrick Geddes (1854 - 1932). It is also a motto text that is built into the very fabric of the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.
Political toughness was evident from the very start of Jim Aitken’s writing career, both in his collections of poetry and in the plays he wrote for such groups as Stop the War, Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Scottish CND, and the Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers. These include Twelve Poems for Mikolaj (1993), From the Front Line of Terror (2002), Celta Arabica (with Ghazi Hussein, 2004), Jock Campbell’s Bairns (2008), and Leaving George (2015). He also contributed two historical poems to A Rose Loupt Oot (2011), commemorating the UCS Work-in of 1971-72.
It is sometimes asserted, against all the evidence, that poetry and politics do not mix, the assumption being that propagandist ranting is the inevitable result. The political writings of Milton and Blake and Burns and Wordsworth and Shelley and MacDiarmid and a thousand others contradict this assertion. Yeats made the useful distinction between poetry that is merely rhetorical, a quarrel with others, and poetry that rings true. Jim Aitken avoids lapsing into the former, and achieves the latter, by grounding his poems very firmly and consistently in the material world of particular places and trees and birds and, above all, people.
His voice is a quiet one, and a wise one, imbued with a Wordsworthian “music of humanity”. It is at the same time a voice of today. In Flutterings, the reader hears this voice very clearly. The book is attractively printed, with good photographic design work. Recommended!
Flutterings, by Jim Aitken, is published by Red Rose Press, Edinburgh, ISBN 978-0-9955281-0-9.
David Betteridge introduces some of the cartoons of Bob Starrett, the official cartoonist of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-in of 1971-2.
When we look at Starrett’s cartoons, we may sometimes laugh Ha! ha! ha! in amusement at his portrayal of some silliness of human behaviour. We may sometimes laugh Ha! ha! in agreement with his satirical view of some political enemy. Most often, however, we laugh Ha! in delighted recognition of his skewering of some error, his highlighting of some truth, his scoring of some point. Such cartoons derive less from a comedy of manners, and rely less on caricature, than they express a comedy of ideas. To put it another way: in Starrett’s cartoons, we find less of the “good-tempered pencil” of a Fougasse, less of the personalised loathing of a Scarfe, and more of a focused analysis of the ways in which political wrongs operate. William Blake said that “a tear is an intellectual thing”. Starrett shows that a laugh can be an intellectual thing, too.
As well as attacking the functions and dysfunctions of Capital, Starrett also aims his fire at those aspects of everyday life that disfigure and divide the cause of Labour. Racism, sectarianism, and xenophobia are frequent targets of his. Like Brecht, Starrett “takes a bold sweep, never letting inessential detail or decoration distract from the statement, which is an artistic and intellectual one” (Brecht, Stage Design for the Epic Theatre, 1951); or, as Starrett himself once said, emphatically, in conversation, “No rococo.”
In the lines that Starrett draws, in the captions that he writes, and in the angles and points of view that he puts across, he is informed by a wide web of creative influences. Jimmy Airley, Jimmy Reid, Mick McGahey, Helen Crawfurd, Mary Barbour, Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, John Maclean, John Berger, Robert Burns, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Lindy Hemming, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Joan Littlewood, Bud Neill, Brendan Behan, Robert Noonan, Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, and, most important of all, because they came first in Starrett’s education, Dunky Lamont and “all the guys in shipyards and on building sites who have given me ideas, themes and arguments” - they, and a long list of other thinkers, activists, artists, and writers stand behind him. Like them, and like the people for whom he draws his cartoons, Starrett looks with a sharp eye at the real world, engages with it, and shakes it until its contradictions rattle and its bubbles of absurdity go Pop!
Starrett learned the essentials of visualising and drawing by copying other people’s work, and by taking advice. He quickly progressed to producing work of his own, in a style of his own, readily identifiable as “Starrett”; but his individuality has always been a reflection of, and a reflection on, topics of popular and political concern, notably the class struggle of Labour against Capital. His cartoons have been gifts, freely given to that struggle, being grounded in it, usually drawn to order, under pressure of time. He was a founder member of the Glasgow Trade Union Centre Poster Group, a spin-off of the historic UCS Work-in of 1971-72.
Films - watching them, and working in them, initially with Bill Forsyth - are an important part of Starrett’s life. A favourite screen experience of his is re-visiting Charlie Chaplin’s great legacy, going back to the early days of cinema. (He has a boxed set of Chaplin’s films at home.) It is not surprising, then, that a recurring character in Starrett’s cartoons, The Worker, has certain similarities to Chaplin’s The Tramp. Both are resilient, resourceful, humane, strong, and clever. Both are constantly up against Wealth, Power, and Injustice, never weakening in their struggle to survive, and if possible prevail. There is, however, a significant difference: The Tramp is a marginalised individual, whereas The Worker is a member of that class in history that is not only the most exploited, but also the most creative. It is interesting to note that, according to the composer Hanns Eisler, Chaplin was a great teacher of Brecht’s. So Starrett and Brecht have that in common, as much else.
As well as being a cartoonist, Starrett is an author. A collection of his writings, The Way I See It, was published in 2013, by Fair Pley. These writings combine memoir, joke, description, and short story, sometimes with a dash of comment. Especially where his setting is the shipyards, Starrett employs (and quotes) a clear and flexible kind of language that Brecht would have called “gestic”: that is to say, a kind of language that embodies both thought and attitude in the very shape of a sentence: a kind of language in which gist and gesture work as one, with “no messing”. (This clarity and flexibility informed the great debates of the UCS Work-in that Starrett’s cartoons helped to commemorate, and fed into the epoch-making oratory of its leaders.) There is an affinity between the punchlines that come thick and fast in Starrett’s writings and the outlines of his cartoons.